Orpheus Descending

Photo by John B. Barrois

By Elise Marenson

This shell of a revival of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending is staged in a West Village church, but neither its holy surroundings nor St. Jude (patron saint of impossible causes) could help this misguided production. The three principal characters – Lady Torrance, Val Xavier, and Carol Cutrere – are so miscast that no additional rehearsal could light a fire under them. The actors often race through hollow dialogue, with no subtext, no imagery put forth, no true inner life, and worst of all, no chemistry between them.

Orpheus Descending isn’t one of Williams’ masterpieces, but it is laced with his familiar theme of sexual repression begging to explode. There are the pent up characters with smoldering desire (yup, that streetcar) and the women who give into it, be it Carol or Blanche. If I am making him sound trite and repetitive, that’s not it. Tennessee is my favorite American playwright, and I’d like to see his work created from the id. Beneath the glorious, lyrical playwright, he was all about lust.

The play opens with a couple of Williams’ Southern biddies gossiping – the silly ladies that end up on the porch in his later one-acts. There is a piece of bizarre staging with Beulah Binnings (Brenda Currin) standing like a hairdresser behind a seated Dolly Hamma (Randi Sobol). As they go on and on, Dolly seems to be staring into space, I guess searching for her imagery, very freshman acting class stuff. I wondered, is Beulah going to do her hair? Some of the townsfolk come and go, sort of breaking the fourth wall, sort of talking to us, but then they go back into the general dry goods store set, never to bother us again.

Enter Carol Cutrere (Beth Bartley), the scandalous woman everyone wants to run out of town. Her face is yellowish white, almost sickly like a cancer patient. The only clue we get that she is supposed to be a free spirit is that she is barefoot, though with nylons on. Her body isn’t loose or free, and she sing-songs her lines on one note.

Lady Torrance (Irene Glezos) is stuck in a loveless marriage to an old, sick man. Though Ms. Glezos sounds Greek, Lady is I-talian which translates in Tennessee’s world as spicy and hot. Maureen Stapleton was Lady in the original 1957 Broadway production, along with Lois Smith as Carol and Cliff Robertson as Val. But the 1960 film The Fugitive Kind, based on the play, got the casting right with Anna Magnani, Joanne Woodward, and Marlon Brando. Ms. Stapleton was relegated to the supporting character role Vee Talbot in the film.

Ms. Glezos as Lady pushes a lot. Some of her speeches sound a bit telenovela. When Val Xavier (Todd d’Amour) enters, nothing in her behavior hints at her attraction to him. Her body should be aching to let go. Nor does Mr. d’Amour’s Val play on his sexuality. He doesn’t use it, he doesn’t tease. No sparks fly between them. When Lady asks Val to move in, she sounds maternal. That’s not a bad choice, if she were only masking her id. When they become lovers, they are merely following stage directions. There is a scene when Val massages Lady. It has no effect on her body, as she tells a funny story that leads to tears.

A breath of fresh air is (Mia Dillon) as Vee Talbot. You want to listen to her. When others are spitting out empty lines, she slows down and speaks from her heart. She creates in her supporting character role a woman you think you know and for whom you have tremendous sympathy. In small roles, (Keir Dullea) as Lady’s husband Jabe Torrance and (Tom Drummer) as Sheriff Talbot give fine performances.

Mr. d’Amour’s electric moment is when he sings “I’ll Fly Away.” Ms. Glezos’ best work is near the end when she remembers her papa’s monkey. She laughs heartily, recounting the day that the monkey died. Up until that point, if only she were that free.

Orpheus Descending – Written by Tennessee Williams; Directed by Austin Pendleton.

WITH: Irene Glezos (Lady Torrance), Todd d’Amour (Val Xavier), Beth Bartley (Carol Cutrere), Brenda Currin (Beulah Binnings), Mia Dillon (Vee Talbot), Keir Dullea (Jabe Torrance), Tom Drummer (Sheriff Talbott), Karen Lynn Gorney (Eva Temple), Jim Heatherly (Pee Wee), Lou Liberatore (David Cutrere), Skid Maher (Dog Hamma/Second man), David Pendleton (Uncle Pleasant/Conjure man), David Roby (Mr. Dubinsky/First man), Randi Sobol (Dolly Hamma), Michele Tauber (Nurse Porter) and Penny Lynn White (Sister Temple).

Sets by Carrie Mossman; costumes by Tony French; lighting by Susannah Baron; stage manager, Robert Neapolitan; Dramaturg, Dr. Annette J. Saddik; Presented by Beth Bartley and Irene Glezos in association with the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival. At St. John’s Lutheran Church, 81 Christopher Street. Tickets http://www.twptown.org/orpheusnyc. Through May 14. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with no intermission.

Elise Marenson

Author: Elise Marenson

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